Culinary School: What to look for when choosing.


Culinary school is not for everyone, and individual schools serve the needs of different people. You need to research the schools you consider, decide if  and which ones suit your needs. You also need to decide if the school you want to visit will offer you a quality education and provide you with a good career track. This is difficult, but there are clues.

Here are things to look for:

1) Who goes to the school Who is the school attracting and how are they attracting them. Are their students the sons and daughters of alumni (most of the big ones have been around long enough for this to be the case) or are they working with unemployment offices to fill their seats with government sponsored students? Are they advertising on late night TV?   “Get up off of that couch and become a chef?” does not promise highly motivated classmates.

2) How easy is it to get in? Schools who let anyone in are not selective. There should be some requirements beyond warm body, GED and someone who  will  sell you a loan.

3) Who owns the school and sits on the Board?  I have been asked to be on the board of four schools. I will not. Like good con artists, bad schools try to qualify themselves by connecting with names of trust. I turned two down out of hand. I am currently on the Board of The French Culinary Academy, a community college and a State University food management program.  Chefs of name like David Kinch or Gary Danko would not sully their hard earned brands by association with a questionable institute.  This is mostly only effective for the large private schools however. Community colleges reach out to many local businesses, who may not be known beyond the city limits.

4) Who are their graduates? Easy to find out. For one thing try Googling phrases like “graduate of the CIA”. Look at the profiles on the celebrity chef web sites.

5) Are they for or non profit? The  non profit institutions have a mission, while the for profit schools have shareholders or partners.  Non profit schools are going to be responsible to their students.

6) How many schools do they own? I maintain that a good educational facility cannot be run like a burger franchise.  Some of the private schools in the country have recently been purchased by corporate groups. While some of their campuses may be adequate, it cannot be possible to control quality as well with ten or twenty campuses as it with with three or fewer.

7) Is the school and the schools belonging to the company owning it dedicated solely to the culinary arts and food management, or do they offer training for many trades.    If the culinary schools are part of a larger corporation which trains everyone from motorcycle mechanics to veterinary assistants, just walk the other way.

8) Are there law suits pending or have there been law suits against them.  That’s right.  Class Action suit. You have Google at your fingertips.

9) Are they being or have they been audited for their loan practices?  You should be able to discover these facts with a little Internet research.

10) Look for their Facebook page. Is it active. What do graduates say about it.

11) Who offers scholarships? There are, be happy, loads of private scholarships about for culinary schools.  Take a look at who offers them to whom.

12) How does their placement and internship service work? Do they have an alumni representative?  What is their graduate placement history? If they offer a list take a leap and call the graduate or the place where he or she supposedly works and confirm that this is true.

13) How much marketing does the school do. Advertising is expensive. If you constantly receive internet ads for one particular school or group, ask yourself if that money, which is paid for by students’ tuition, wouldn’t be better be spent on on the school.

14) What do they tell you in the sales pitch.  Let us be perfectly clear about this: The sweet woman telling you about the school is  a sales person, who is possibly driven by a bonus for each new student (not all schools), or at least whose performance is measured by her ability to bring in paying students.  She is not unbiased. Her job is to tell you what you want to hear or what she thinks you want to hear. (I know some absolutely wonderful recruiters, by the way.)  If she tells you that you will be a chef in two years after graduation (assuming you are not one now), thank her politely and find the door. If  he says that you are perfect for the job…you get the picture


Practical questions:

1) Student teacher ratio?

2) Lab/kitchen time? Is there enough kitchen space for you to have enough hands on experience.

3) Who are the teachers? Are they respected culinary professionals who have chosen to teach or are some recent graduates. Do you know any of the places they worked?

4) What’s the equipment  like?

5) What is their image where the school is located. It’s a bit brash, but call a chef or so or ask one to come to the table when  you eat at their restaurant. The locals know the locals.

6) Where do their students come from? Is the school a “diploma mill” in the culinary receiving insurance or state grants for the unemployable? Have they been ordered to take the course by a judge? Are some of them experienced cooks who want to improve their skills? Are they recreational cooks and retirees, or does it focus on mainstream kitchen training.

8) What is the curriculum?  The school should provide you with sound tools and a good foundation on which to build your future: knife skills, basic skill classes, sauces, meat and protein, and hospitality financials. Chefs’ complain of some graduates that they cannot make a béchamel(a very basic sauce made of flour and water).  If the school seems to put media education and the latest trend before the basics, they will not offer the best foundation for your future. How much actual instruction do you receive for the tuition.

9) What does the tuition cover. The higher tuition for the CIA, for instance, covers housing and food. What about uniforms, knives and books? Your education is also a financial transaction, so you need t compare costs and benefits. You should also ask if and of internships are paid and if you pay tuition during the internship.

10) Where is the school located? Are there enough restaurants in the area to let you work while you learn?  What will your living expenses be.

Where else can you get information? Facebook pages, as mentioned before, LinkedIn groups. Alumni groups – ask the school if there is an alumni group meeting in your area. Google.  A six figure investment merits a little research.

Next:Some of the better known schools:


  4 Responses to “Culinary School: What to look for when choosing.”

Comments (4)
  1. My response is to only part of this post. Walk away from a trade school that does multiple training careers? Uh, not always. If that was the case, in 1976 one of only three Chef Training programs in the country would not exist. Washburne in Chicago. This is a public program, not for profit, established decades before your birth. Despite its flaws ( I am a graduate and critic) it remains a fine program. Like any educational system you get what you put into it. I paid 300 dollars every class, x 5 classes, each class was 5 months long, 5 days a week, 7 hours a day. In the evening I worked usually until 1am. After 2 years I enrolled in another Washburne program, a Meatcutters Training & Handling program. That was 8 dollars for 18 weeks, 3 days a week, 7 hours a day. I worked with many CIA graduates throughout my career. They held no educational advantage over Washburne graduates in general.

    Omitting the harm the Food Network,and other cable/satellite/internet sources have done to the profession by glamorizing it to the point of absurdity is an oversight I am sure. How many starry eyed graduates these days spend their entire savings trying to be the next Top Chef? Only to find out no one even wants to hear them speak(rightfully so usually) in any kitchen unless its “Yes Chef”. How many are influenced by dog & pony shows spewing poor information that gets them started in the wrong direction? The commercials between purple haired wanna be “chefs” wearing costume jewelry and poor wardrobe choices drive home the illusion.

    • Absolutely. We do not disagree and Washburne continues to produce highly competent cooks who become exceptional chefs. Community colleges are mentioned as being positive. I am on the board of one and occasionally give presentations at another. My only regret is that I can hardly access their graduates as candidates, as they are in high demand.
      The comment on schools with multiple educational programs is targeted at for profit groups with multiple schools, not trade training schools (and I strongly believe that one of our great national failures is to offer more quality and focused trade education at the high school level, as well.)
      These are the schools which advertise on local television, for instance. Their culinary campuses are usually separate, but they offer everything from home nursing to aircraft maintenance.
      They have recently come under fire for their recruiting policies, apparently blocking some of them from receiving federally insured loans for their students. This is having a profound effect on their enrollment, especially since private banks seem unwilling to invest in areas where history shows the students cannot repay their loans. As a result at least one of these schools is closing about a quarter of their campuses and letting 900 of their employees go. There is no indication at this point which campuses will be closed and whether they will be culinary or other trades.
      There are other schools with multiple disciplines – Johnson and Wales or Kendal, for instance. The difference is whether the school sees its mission in the development and best interest of their students, or in an overall profit.
      Your point is well made.

  2. Thank you very much. Right. Gasp and horror. Meant of course was béchamel. Editing always appreciated. At any rate, you can never have too much irony, so I am glad to oblige there. Corrections have been made. I am delighted that you enjoy the site.

  3. I’ve enjoyed this website in the short time I’ve been reading through your posts because it raises lots of great points…but point (8) in the above post caught my eye when you mentioned the bit about the roux. I’ve never met anyone that, a) considers a roux a sauce or b) made with flour and water. There is heavy irony in way it was incorrectly used, which has a humerous effect though.